Number crunching adds up
The Hang Lung Mathematics Awards (HLMA) are a good example of those principles. Started in 2004 for secondary school students in Hong Kong, they give youngsters the opportunity to realise their potential in a high-level research-based maths competition. The aim is to challenge students with tasks that go beyond the normal school curriculum and, in doing so, stimulate their creativity and critical thinking.
What lies behind the competition is a long-held dream shared by Ronnie Chan, chairman of Hang Lung Properties, and Professor Yau Shing-tung, who holds positions at the Chinese University (CUHK) and Harvard University in the United States. The pair recognised the importance of grooming world-class mathematicians in Hong Kong and saw a bi-annual contest as the best way to promote "serious scholarship" among the younger generation.
"The HLMA serve as an excellent platform to discover and cultivate the strengths and abilities of gifted youngsters, and encourage them to develop their potential to the fullest extent," Chan says.
The rules call for individuals or teams of up to five students to design and execute a research project, under the supervision of a teacher. There is no pre-set framework to follow, with the emphasis on self-discovery and the exploration of ideas. Final project reports are closely scrutinised by the judges, using a process similar to that for a scientific publication, with the focus on methodology, originality and scholarship.
Short-listed teams must also make an oral defence before a panel, which entails a public presentation and closed-door questioning, as if for a doctoral degree.
"Students who make it to the final stage have already obtained top-tier university level," says Yau, who chairs the adjudication committee made up of distinguished mathematicians from around the world. "[We hope] the HLMA can sow the seeds to transform the educational culture of secondary schools in Hong Kong."
Commending the outstanding submissions of previous finalists, he notes that last year's awards attracted a record number of participants - 100 teams from 56 local schools.
A member of the gold award-winning team, Tsoi Kwok-wing of the Po Leung Kuk Centenary Lu Shiu Chung Memorial College in Tuen Mun, recalls the sense of excitement and achievement the competition gave.
His team's project dealt with complicated formulas and involved finding a generalisation of a problem set in the China Hong Kong Mathematical Olympiad.
"We read almost 15 classics on abstract algebra and number theory," says Tsoi, who is now studying at the University of Warwick in Britain.
"It was an amazing experience. We had to understand all these new abstract concepts and judge which material was relevant to our research. That was quite challenging, but I can still [remember] the excitement when we successfully achieved the generalisation."
Eschewing high-tech aids, Tsoi notes the team relied on three tools for their research: "pencils, paper and our brains."
"The HLMA really gives typical students like us a precious chance to explore and achieve something different from the school curriculum," he says.